Protesters clash with riot police near Taksim Square on May Day. Photographer: Bulent Kilic/AFP via Getty Images
Protesters clash with riot police near Taksim Square on May Day. Photographer: Bulent Kilic/AFP via Getty Images

May 1, International Workers' Day, is always big in Istanbul. And judging by the new mobile, tear-gas dispensing walls that police deployed today, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been preparing for this one for some time.

In Turkey, May Day is all about Taksim, the central square next to Gezi Park where last year's unrest started, and which Erdogan wanted to redevelop. The government has ruled that May Day protests can't be held in Taksim this year, designating instead a more distant area just outside the old city. Protesters ignored the new venue.

The security forces were ready with water cannons and tear gas at the usual starting points for marches to Taksim. Skirmishes have been going on all morning. Intriguingly, the police have also produced several blue mobile metal walls to keep the protesters out. According to the newspaper Hurriyet Daily News, these have been designed so that if the crowd pushes against the metal, the walls automatically dispense tear gas. They also have integrated cameras to record who is doing the pushing. If they are effective, I can see Turkey developing a lively business selling the walls globally.

The government will win as usual, but the whole scenario is depressingly telling of Erdogan's arc of democratic failure. Taksim was made off-limits to May Day protests beginning in 1978, after more than 34 people were killed the previous year. Snipers, never identified or charged, began the killing by firing into the crowd on the square. Police then attacked, and most of the fatalities were people crushed in the mayhem. May Day protesters were allowed back in the square in 2010.

By that time, Erdogan had crushed the so-called deep state, which was responsible for the 1977 bloodbath. He had freed the country from the "tutelage" of the military, which resulted in a series of coups, including one in 1980. When he reopened Taksim for May Day demonstrations, it was hugely symbolic of the strides the country had been making.

The columnist Sedat Ergin dug up the speech that Erdogan made at the time. It was inspiring.

"The labor movement, the union movement and the workers are living and following a very hopeful portrayal in the name of Turkey and democracy. May 1, 2010, is the concrete monument of how Turkey has changed, matured, broken its taboos, overcome the status quo, how it has recovered from its fears of agitation and provocation," Erdogan said. "Turkey had to wait for 32 years for this picture, for this mood of festivity. Yesterday, after 32 years, this has finally happened. Turkey has finally achieved this."

Four short years later, Erdogan has closed Taksim again. Now, his tone and message are very different, though still peppered with his claims to represent Turkey's democratic future.

"The labor union leader comes out and says, ‘This place is our sacred place.’ Look what he is saying. What kind of sacredness is that?" Erdogan says now. "We know very well that certain people wish to take Turkey to the finale they have reached in Egypt and in Ukraine. They will strive in vain."

In the current repressive atmosphere, it comes as no surprise that the annual Freedom House report on media freedom released this morning has named Turkey as the country sliding backward fastest, moving from the "partly free" category to "not free," along with Russia, China and most of the Middle East. Those blue metal walls say it all.

To contact the author of this article: Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Mark Gilbert at magilbert@bloomberg.net.